Sometime in the next week or two, it will happen. Maybe you’ll be walking to your car one morning and a gentle breeze will send an unexpected chill up your arm. Perhaps you’ll be leaving work and notice the light has changed, that the shadows extend farther than they did the day before. Or one afternoon you’ll notice that the sky seems especially crisp, the air noticeably drier.
You’ll experience one of these things and experience something else.
After a long summer of 90/90s — 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity — you’ll get your first sign that fall and its enticing weather are on the way. A sign that soon it will be safe to leave your climate-controlled world and return to a land where gentle breezes and crisp light and dry air have a way of rejuvenating the soul like processed air just can’t.
There’s no better way to experience this rejuvenation of fall than on a hiking trail. And there are few places better to enjoy a day on the trail than in North Carolina. Allow us a moment to make our case.
Living in the population center of the state, in the arc running through the rolling Piedmont from Charlotte northeast to the Triad and across to the Triangle then down to Fayetteville, you have access to some of the best urban hiking around. In the Triangle, you might be content with Umstead State Park, a 5,700-acre preserve smack in the center of it all that last year gave escape to nearly 1.2 million visitors. With 21 miles of hiking trail and another 13 miles of multiuse trail, Umstead offers quick, easy escape. Likewise Eno River State Park in and around Durham. That park’s 28 miles of trail takes hikers on a variety of escapes, some of which make you feel you’ve been transported to the mountains.
And there’s more. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through the northern Triangle, spending 60 miles along the southern banks of Falls Lake, making it one of the longest urban hiking trails in the country. The MST will soon extend an additional 14 miles to the west and another 32 miles east (the latter on paved greenway). Soon, you’ll be able to walk from Clayton in Johnston County west to near Hillsborough in Orange County.
In the Triad, you have Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks. Still in the Piedmont, both parks offer a taste of the mountains, with elevations exceeding 2,500 feet. To the south, a national forest, the Uwharrie, offers another taste of alpine hiking.
Charlotte has Crowders Mountain State Park and quick access to our second argument for why North Carolina is a hiking heaven: the Southern Appalachians. The stellar hiking of our high country greets you at the Blue Ridge Escarpment, an impressive rise that should feel like a foreboding rampart but instead offers a welcoming and memorable introduction thanks to Stone Mountain State Park, Doughton Park, Wilson Creek, Linville Gorge and Graybeard Mountain, among other venues. Just beyond, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail rims 300 miles of the escarpment. Beyond that you’ll find the hiking responsible for North Carolina’s reputation.
Between them, the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests cover more than a billion acres of western North Carolina. The Shining Rock Wilderness, much of it between 5,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation, is one of the few exposed areas of the mountains and thus offers some of North Carolina’s best views. In the Black Mountains, you’re on top of the East Coast, with elevations approaching 6,700 feet, the highest east of South Dakota’s Black Hills and with terrain more appropriate for a northern boreal forest than one in the Southern Appalachians. In the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest you’ll be hiking in one of the best stands of virgin forest in the East, on the 100-mile Bartram Trail you’ll be walking in the footsteps of botanist William Bartram, one of the first and most comprehensive chroniclers of the southeast in the late 1700s, and in the Great Smoky Mountains you’ll walk through some of the best forest in the country, period.
So many great opportunities. Which makes living in North Carolina and not being a hiker akin to being a fish but not knowing how to swim.
We’d like to change that.
We’d like to take you non-hikers and occasional hikers, throw you into the pool and make bonafide hikers out of you.
Introducing GetHiking! Starting in early September — once those arm-cooling breezes and crisp, clear skies become more commonplace — we’re going to conduct weekly guided hikes. The hikes will be lead by Joe Miller, through our ongoing partnership with his adventure living blog, GetGoingNC.com Joe is no stranger to hiking, having written “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” and “Backpacking North Carolina.” He’s also familiar with coaching hiking, as the lead coach for the Ultimate Hike’s Triangle chapter.
We’ll provide more details on the GetHiking! program over the next couple of weeks. The only thing you’ll need to bring to the program is a good pair of hiking shoes or boots and a sprit of adventure. We’ll provide the guidance, direction and more.
In the meantime, check out the accompanying slide show of some of our favorite places to hike in North Carolina. To whet your appetite further, here’s a list of venues mentioned in today’s post with a quick description and a link for more information.
We’ll be back next week with more details.
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Listed in order of appearance in today’s post:
Umstead State Park, Raleigh. 5,700-acre forest in the heart of the Triangle, with 21 miles of dedicated hiking trail and another 13 miles of multiuse trail.
Eno River State Park, Orange and Durham counties. 28 miles of trail in this linear park, which runs from Guess Road in Durham west to just east of Hillsborough.
Mountains-to-Sea Trail, statewide, passing through the Triangle along the Eno River, Falls Lake and the Neuse River. More than 100 miles of this trail is finished through the Triangle, including 60 miles of intimate, natural surface trail along Falls Lake.
Hanging Rock State Park, north of Greensboro. More than 18 miles of trail, nestled in the Piedmont but with the waterfalls, rock outcrops, cliffs and elevation you’d associate with the mountains.
Pilot Mountain State Park, northwest of Winston-Salem. Like Hanging Rock, part of the ancient Sauratown Mountains. About 25 miles of trail, some open to horses, with lots of great views.
Uwharrie National Forest, southwest of Asheboro. Often pitched as North Carolina’s Central Park, the Uwharries feature the 20-mile Uwharrie National Recreation Trail and the 7.2-mile Birkhead Mountain Wilderness Loop.
Crowders Mountain State Park, west of Charlotte. Numerous hiking trails centered around two ridges. One trail links the park with parks in South Carolina.
Stone Mountain State Park, Roaring Gap. 16 miles of trail cover this 14,700-acre park that climbs the Blue Ridge escarpment.
Doughton Park, Blue Ridge Parkway. Perhaps the best hiking along the Blue Ridge escarpment, with hiking through open meadows up top, hiking through wild forest on down the mountain.
Wilson Creek, Morganton. Nearly 50,000 acres of mostly rock and water, well accessed by trail.
Linville Gorge Wilderness, / Linville. Described by some as the wildest spot in the East, this 2,000-foot-deep gorge is accessed by several steep trails and the 13-mile Linville Gorge Trail, which follows, or tries to, the Linville River.
Graybeard Mountain, Montreat. A surprisingly challenging 7-plus mile loop trail through a surprisingly verdant forest.
Shining Rock Wilderness and surroundings, Blue Ridge Parkway. 18,000-acre wilderness with peaks reaching 6,000 feet and some of the best open hiking in the state.
Black Mountains, Burnsville. The highest mountain range east of South Dakota’s Black Hills with ample trail access, including the 13-mile Black Mountain Crest Trail that traces the spine of the chain.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Robbinsville. 3,800-acre forest with trees dating back 400 years.
N.C. Bartram Trail, western North Carolina. 100-mile trail roughly tracing the route taken by botanist William Bartram.